Katja Beth

Buck­wheat – The unknown Russian

When Russia is mentioned, most people think of cher­nozem soils and vast wheat fields. Few people are aware that buck­wheat reveals a great deal about the Russian soul. This becomes clear at the very latest when you sit down to eat. Because Russian cuisine without buck­wheat is unthink­able.

The scent of honey wafts in the air. This is no surprise, as we’re standing in the middle of a flow­ering white buck­wheat field with the blossom emit­ting this intense aroma. Bees, enticed here by the scent and the nectar secreted by the plants, visit them during the long flow­ering phase from July to September. Nature was clever to do this, as common buck­wheat (Fagopyrum escu­lentum) is reliant on cross-fertil­i­sa­tion by insects.

Arable farmer Vladimir Ivanovich Shashkov annu­ally grows 500ha (1,200ac) of buck­wheat.

The field that seems to stretch to the horizon belongs to Vladimir Ivanovich Shashkov. Of course, the area is not quite that big. His largest field measures a whole 280ha, though the average size is “only” 140ha (345ac). Overall, the Russian culti­vates an area of approx­i­mately 3,400ha (8,400ac), yet this makes him one of the smaller agri­cul­tural busi­nesses, not including self-suffi­cient farmers. Those who want to belong to the large busi­nesses need to have hectares in five or six-digit figures. Euro­peans should not be too impressed by this either, since the colossal Russia, span­ning 6.5m mi2, is about as large as Europe and the USA together.

Crop rota­tion and fallowing

Every year, farmer Shashkov grows approx­i­mately 500ha (1,200ac) of buck­wheat. This makes him one of the larger producers of this modest fruit seed. Here in the area around Borilova, a small town near Oryol, around 220mi south of Moscow, wheat is the domi­nant crop.

We are trying to culti­vate vari­eties that will become more tolerant to cold.

Vladimir Ivanovičh Šašhkov

Why is he growing this ther­mophilic crop? “It suits my crop rota­tion, which is made up of wheat, buck­wheat, rye, rape­seed and fallow fields,” said Shashkov. Ulti­mately, buck­wheat is not a grain but like rhubarb, it belongs to the knotweed family. The name of the plant and its brown trian­gular fruit comes from its simi­larity to beech­nuts. An advan­tage for the crop farmer is the late sowing, from mid to the end of May, as this fits in well with his work schedule. This is because buck­wheat is very sensi­tive to the cold and cannot tolerate frost. The fruit seed only begins to germi­nate and grow at 8 degrees C, but then it happens quickly. “In the mean­time we are trying to culti­vate vari­eties that will become more tolerant to cold,” he said.

Although “the queen of soils”, or cher­nozem, is right under our feet, our conver­sa­tion does not then turn to record harvests, but instead the oppo­site. Why are fallow fields in his crop rota­tion? Is it not really a sin to leave such soil fallow? “I don’t just have cher­nozem, I also have sandy and loamy areas. However, the deci­sive factor is that without a varied crop rota­tion, including fallow fields, I cannot farm crops on a long-term basis. The soil has to with­stand extreme temper­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions here from +30 degrees C in the summer and -30 degrees C in the winter,” replied Shashkov. Fallow cher­nozem fields are common throughout Russia, usually on a three-yearly cereal crop cycle.

From the field to the kitchen

Buck­wheat is not only a favourite in the field, but also in Russian cuisine. On average, each Russian consumes 5kg of it a year, according to a report from the Moscow Times. A common staple food, “gretchka” as it is called in Russian, features in the morning as groats or porridge for break­fast. It can also be a side dish for meat and fish during the day and a stand-alone dish with mush­rooms or made into a pancake.

Buck­wheat is an impor­tant part of Russian cuisine, usually cooked for eating. The flour is mainly used for making pancakes.

The common feature in all recipes is that the seeds are used only in their husked form. From a nutri­tional and phys­i­o­log­ical perspec­tive, buck­wheat is also attrac­tive as it contains a lot of starch, high-value protein, vitamin B and various trace elements. As it is gluten free, the plant is also a suit­able food for people with an intol­er­ance or allergy.

Use as a cleaning crop

Nikolay Eugenye­vich Matyushenko is another farmer who regu­larly grows buck­wheat. He lives with his wife in the Korenevsky District, which is part of the Kursk admin­is­tra­tive region. His chil­dren are grown up and do not work in farming. However, the farmer hopes that one day they will join him in the 2,000ha (5,000ac) farm busi­ness. Like other farmers, Matyushenko does not live on the farm, but a few kilo­me­tres away from it.

A privately-run agri­cul­tural busi­ness does not auto­mat­i­cally have a complete farm­stead – its more a kind of parking space with older farm-build­ings.

Unlike in Europe, a privately-run agri­cul­tural busi­ness does not auto­mat­i­cally have a complete farm­stead with a house, build­ings and machinery shed. In Russia there is more likely to be a kind of parking space with older farm build­ings that are gener­ally used as a place for storing machines and a work­shop. There is also always housing for employees and often silos for storing the grain after the harvested.

Nikolay Eugenye­vich Matyushenko does not live on his farm but a few kilo­me­ters away in the nearest village.

Speaking of staff, is it hard to find employees in such a rural area? “I have 18 members of staff and every­thing is going well at the moment. However, there have been times where people have come and gone – either of their own accord or because they had to,” the trained agron­o­mist remem­bered, who seized the oppor­tu­nity to become self-employed at the end of the Soviet Union. As he had previ­ously had a lead­er­ship role in a “kolkhoz”, a collec­tive farm, he did not find it too diffi­cult to manage a farm. Yet it took several years before he was proud to be a self-employed farmer, which he openly admits. The reason for this being that farming does not have the best image, partic­u­larly with young people. They move to towns after they finish school to find work.

But let’s return to buck­wheat. What are his moti­va­tions for growing it? “It is a genuine cleaning crop,” said Matyushenko. Because of the crop’s quick growth, it suppresses weeds and also combats sugar beet nema­todes. Both of these attrib­utes suit Matyushenko’s crop rota­tion perfectly which, in addi­tion to sugar beet, also includes wheat, barley, soya, maize, sunflowers and lupines.

Tough harvesting dead­lines

Once again, the air smells like honey. This time we are standing with Viktor Niko­layevich Petrov on one of his buck­wheat fields. The farmer explains that there’s no way to dismiss this annual crop if you carry out crop rota­tion seri­ously. Because the crop has neither specific require­ments from the soil nor the fertil­i­sa­tion, and it is well self-toler­ating.

In contrast, things are some­what more compli­cated for harvests that may be ready at the end of August, depending on when it was sown. As the plant can grow new flowers and leaves right to the end without inter­rup­tion, it is not easy to ascer­tain the best harvest date. As a rule, harvesting can be done when around 80% of the seeds are ripe. In prac­tice, farmers use conven­tional combine harvester tech­niques for grains.

Alter­na­tively, they first cut the buck­wheat and then lay it on windrows in order to perform the collec­tion and threshing later on with a pick-up attach­ment. Viktor Niko­layevich Petrov considers that every year is different and each harvest is a new expe­ri­ence: “Buck­wheat is like women. One life­time is not enough to under­stand this plant.”

In contrast, things are some­what more compli­cated for harvests that may be ready at the end of August, depending on when it was sown. As the plant can grow new flowers and leaves right to the end without inter­rup­tion, it is not easy to ascer­tain the best harvest date. As a rule, harvesting can be done when around 80% of the seeds are ripe. In prac­tice, farmers use conven­tional combine harvester tech­niques for grains.

Buck­wheat is like women. One life­time is not enough to under­stand this plant.

Viktor Niko­la­je­vich Petrov

Alter­na­tively, they first cut the buck­wheat and then lay it on windrows in order to perform the collec­tion and threshing later on with a pick-up attach­ment. Viktor Niko­layevich Petrov considers that every year is different and each harvest is a new expe­ri­ence: “Buck­wheat is like women. One life­time is not enough to under­stand this plant.”